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"Actual" Myths vs. Imagination (Speculative Fiction Discussion) (1 Viewer)

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EternalGreen

Senior Member
To start this conversation, I will propose a spectrum. On one end, you have things like “the Vampyre” by John Polidori, which is “accurate” to folklore. And on the other, you have something like Tolkien, which is completely off-the-wall with no pretentious of being stuff people “actually believed.”
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Advantages of the folklore side of the spectrum:
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A) People are already familiar with the speculative elements. There can be a killer “oh, god, I know what that is” moment. (Especially pertinent for horror.)
B) Characters can react to your speculative elements without straining suspension of disbelief. Something like “let’s avoid the graveyard because of the ghouls” makes sense if your story is set in ancient times, because people really did believe in ghouls back then.
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Disadvantages of the folklore side of the spectrum:
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A) If you can read folklore, so can other writers. You will have more competition. You will have to write significantly better stories than your competition to get published.
[FONT=&quot]B) It can feel stale or overdone if done poorly.
C) Editors have higher standards for things they "see often" (their words)
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Advantages of the imaginative side of the spectrum:
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A) Less competition.
B) It’s often fresher.
C) the “weird fiction” genre is booming
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Disadvantages:
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A) You need to spend more valuable time explaining your speculative elements
[FONT=&quot]B) it can feel less connected to reality

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I am inclined slightly towards writing the imaginative side of the spectrum. As a reader, I prefer the folkloric side.
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Joker

Senior Member
I think the Witcher series did a good job combining elements of both options.

For background, the setting is set on a planet that was populated after a warp in a spacetime continuum, bringing over both humans (heavily implied to be Earth humans) and all sorts of mythological creatures
This gave Sapkowski and the subsequent game writers a great amount of leeway to use a wide array of cultures and play them how I want. So you get The Little Mermaid, but with an edgy twist. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but with a twist. So on. It's recognizable, but only if you squint through a dark lens.
 

codyrobi613

Senior Member
As a writer, I love the imaginative side too. You get to create a whole world and build the story off all those layers. I can playfully hint at things in the larger world that aren't a part of the story in focus. I think deep and intentional world building that invited the readers imagination can fill the gap from reality that you mention... You attempt to ground them in another reality
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Good topic. For me, the issue of being less connected to reality is really significant.

The problem with the 'imaginative' side of the spectrum is it can be subject to 'eye roll syndrome', that is: It can be really hard to get readers, especially adults, to give a poodles about it. That's somewhat beautifully summarized by such statements as 'As a reader, I prefer stories grounded in the real world...as a writer, I prefer stories that lack that grounding'. Of course, because as writers we want to be free to write without accountability to things like realism. Nobody can critique the realism of a made up world. It's like in the thread with the guy who was defending Tolkien's impossibly square mountain ranges because 'it's fantasy'. Sure, it's fantasy, do what you like! It's essentially an appeal to childhood anarchy.

A lot of epic fantasy fails not because it is badly written but because it simply lacks the ability to mean something to people who work two jobs and ride the bus to work.

We often talk about imagination as being something vital. To an extent that is true, all stories need some imagination. However, it's also fair to say that imagination is not the be all and end all. It is not necessarily something that is a major priority to all (or even most) readers of speculative fiction in endless quantities. Rather, most readers want something that blends the imaginative with the real world.

What is the evidence for this? Well, for starters, the two biggest fiction markets are romance and crime. Both of those genres typically are set in some form of the 'real world' -- i.e. they feature human beings, on planet Earth, and within recognizable time periods and incorporating aspects of the everyday. Other forms of speculative fiction is (cumulatively) about half as popular as Romance and Crime combined, and that's not considering that a lot of fantasy, horror and science fiction is also set in the 'real world'. So, the data seems to suggest that the market for highly 'imaginative' books is relatively small. I definitely disagree it's less competitive!

That doesn't mean very imaginative works aren't valuable! They are, and always will be. What it does probably mean is that the adult readership, as a whole, is naturally fairly skeptical, more so leaning towards dismissing works of pure imagination than accepting them without question. There isn't a huge market for readers willing to place endless investment in fictionalized, unrealistic worlds and what market there is probably has pretty high standards as to what will past the Bullshit Test.

For that reason, 'the imaginative side' not only needs to be imaginative but it also needs to be compelling in order to make up for the lack of intrinsic meaning found in pure escapism. To write effective escapism requires, in my opinion, more literary talent than simply writing about the real world, pound-for-pound, because if you cannot smash down the door of natural skepticism through pure literary and storytelling prowess, you cannot succeed as an 'imaginative author'.

It's a little bit like how the standards of musical technique tend to be higher for psychedelic, progressive rock and jazz music than for pop or punk rock. There's a reason why jazz musicians typically are much more advanced than punk rock musicians, why jazz needs to exhibit high-end musical talent, and that is because jazz music is focused on an escape to a certain state of mind, a certain era, a certain something that is NOT 'ordinary'. Conversely, popular and punk rock music can often get away with being 'basic' because that is it's appeal -- it's ordinary, working person music designed to be accessible and, in being accessible, it typically focuses on ordinary, working person problems. There's far less issue of 'this doesn't speak to me, it's just weird' compared to Cthulhu & The Elves Of Agamemnon. The flip side of that, of course, is that pop and punk rock music cannot spout gibberish in lieu of actual lyrics and put in a ten minute drum solo in lieu of a chorus.
 
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vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
The premise of the OP hits home for me. I'm 40K words into a first-person minor Olympian, who along with other surviving Olympians, are being targeted by a combination of unfriendly otherworlders and demons. My premise is that Olympians are also otherworlders who got here, liked it, and stayed. By otherworlder, I use extra-dimensional travel, not interstellar travel.

I'm very deep into accurate mythology when I get to discussing the past, but it's accurate mythology with a twist. Word of mouth is rarely accurate, and gets less accurate as time goes by.

This is true over the course of a week, so what is the state of 'word of mouth fact' over the course of centuries? My MC gets put in the position of saying, "Here's what you've heard. Here's what's right, and here's what really happened." When you study mythology, you find a lot of conflicting stories. So it's perfectly valid to choose one over the other as you please, and then give that one your own slant.

I'm pushing the mythology in some cases for humor, and in other cases to state my own rules. It's my maiden voyage into first person, and I'm having a lot of fun with it. :)
 

natifix

Senior Member
I love the imaginative side of things but like mentioned before, keeping things realistic so the reader can better imagine themselves in that very position, experience, or person's body. For me, the technicals of writing, drawing, listening, aren't what makes the art valuable or desirable, its the way it expresses itself and relates to me, and how I relate to it. How it makes me feel. That is the relationship that is developed during a reading, and if that relationship of realistic translation is not strong, I'd assume readers would simply not be as interested to read into it. It has to pull the reader in, so you have to build a door and open it enough for them to see in but giving them no control on their choice to walk thru it . . . like autopilot. That attraction, relation, is really important to keep realistic enough so the reader can continue to relate the experience.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
There isn't a huge market for readers willing to place endless investment in fictionalized, unrealistic worlds and what market there is probably has pretty high standards as to what will past the Bullshit Test.

Not to be cruel, but John Norman will laugh at that conclusion all the way to the bank. LOL
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
Most of the foklore is pretty unrealistic. If anything, you're going to have to be pretty creative to bring the craziness of the folklore into the real world.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Not to be cruel, but John Norman will laugh at that conclusion all the way to the bank. LOL

What part of it would he laugh at? Super imaginative writing is a small market. A small market is still a market but the numbers don't lie. There are far more readers of grounded fiction than imaginative fiction, much like there are far more buyers of photographers and portrait artists than of the work of experimental modern artists.

People generally lean toward the familiar than the 'weird', while taking into account most people's actual preference would be something in between, blending the realistic and the unrealistic, which is why things like romance and urban fantasy and science fiction are more popular than novels about sentient hemorrhoids.

An awful lot of 'imaginative fiction' reads like sentient hemorrhoids, IMO.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
What part of it would he laugh at? Super imaginative writing is a small market. A small market is still a market but the numbers don't lie. There are far more readers of grounded fiction than imaginative fiction, much like there are far more buyers of photographers and portrait artists than of the work of experimental modern artists.

People generally lean toward the familiar than the 'weird', while taking into account most people's actual preference would be something in between, blending the realistic and the unrealistic, which is why things like romance and urban fantasy and science fiction are more popular than novels about sentient hemorrhoids.

An awful lot of 'imaginative fiction' reads like sentient hemorrhoids, IMO.

Sure, but a book about hydras is not more "grounded" than a book about some random creature I just made up. A "myth" is just silly nonsense people imagined and got it into their heads to believe. You might as well skip a step and just imagine something yourself.

I know for a fact that publishers of short stories shun things they "see often."

"Weird fiction" with a supposedly "literary" bend is what short story publishers like.

Fiction that is "different" is currency nowadays in the short fiction market. I protest this as much as you do; but that's how it is.

(My personal theory is that short stories are sold with almost zero regard for the actual audience, and that we are trying simply to amuse impossibly jaded editors who power-read stories in a particular genre professionally.)
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Sure, but a book about hydras is not more "grounded" than a book about some random creature I just made up. A "myth" is just silly nonsense people imagined and got it into their heads to believe. You might as well skip a step and just imagine something yourself.

I think I disagree. A book about hydras is more grounded than a book about Zimbakawakas (a fictionalized creature I just made up). It's more grounded because we know the basics of what a hydra is because it already exists in our lexicon, and in our culture. That 'silly nonsense people believe' can be very valuable!

We can see the difference this makes easily. If the first line of a hypothetical story was "He encountered the hydra in the river that night" most people have at least a vague understanding of what that *looks like*. We have *read this story before*, so to speak.

Conversely, if I write "He encountered the Zimbakawaka in the river that night" then suddenly I am in a place where not only do I need to describe this new creature, but I also need to do it in a way that feels as 'real' as a hydra, or whatever type of creature that makes a good analog for what I am trying to do. That alone can be a problem. Is a Zimbakawaka like a hydra? Like a dragon? Or is it more like a mermaid? It doesn't actually matter, because the salient point is it must be *like* something in order for it to make a shred of sense. We cannot imagine the unimaginable, so any effort at 'creating something' invariably involves forging some link to the comprehensible.

What is a hydra? Basically a large river-dwelling snake, maybe a dragon, with many heads. What is a dragon? Why, it's a big lizard or snake. You can do this for everything. What is a Bigfoot? Big monkeyish humanoid. What is Darth Vader? Darth Vader is a humanoid in a black suit and mask, a suit that itself is a composite between a roman soldier's cape and helmet, typical spacesuit onesie underneath, and a breathing apparatus that's essentially an aqualung. What is Medusa? A woman with snakes for hair. You can do this for everything. Hobbits are short rural humans with features of standard 'little people' myths.

Not to get philosophical, but there isn't much creation in creation. What there is, is 'compositing' of other things, which is a form of creation in itself absolutely, but the point I'm making is you're going to use existing/grounded stuff anyway. The choice between 'making up' a creature (Zimbakawaka) and simply altering/subverting the existing hydra (or bigfoot, or bunny rabbit, or Darth Vader) is not really all that different. As long as the hydra is in some sense different than a hydra that has come before, which may be as simple as just giving it a different name, it doesn't need to be a brand new creature. It can be, but it doesn't need to be, and the odds of creating a brand new creature that passes the credibility test are quite low.

I can say 'the zimbakawaka is quarter fish, quarter lion, quarter sunflower and quarter urine, it is headless but has a head and its claws are made of gas' if I want but that isn't credible (despite being imaginative and original) as it doesn't compute logically. How can something have claws made of gas and be a quarter urine? No, of course not, I would need to combine elements that work in this new composite. That is hard to do originally. I will, most likely, end up with something that sounds VERY similar to something else that has been done. "A Zimbakawaka is half man, half horse...oh shit, that's a centaur!" A Zimbakawak is half octopus, half human...oh shit, that's cthulhu!", etc.

I'm not saying people shouldn't (try to) create new characters. Only pointing out that, given the fundamentals are mostly the same regardless of whether the creature is existing myth or not (it needs to be 'grounded' somehow either way) that extremely imaginative work is not only more difficult for the writer but also more consuming of the reader's resources of time and effort. Which can be a plus or a minus, for sure, it just happens to be a minus for a very large amount of people. I say this based on (1) The relatively small proportion of book sales that are truly 'speculative' to begin with and (2) The even smaller proportion of speculative books that are highly imaginative -- that don't rely, in some manner, on analogs of existing myths and a sense of the world being 'like the real world' and that don't borrow from what is already there and, to the extent they offer anything 'new' at all it's all composites again and again. Most people would prefer the monster be a hydra (or a hydra by some other name) than something that is a quarter urine with gassy claws because most people want to be able to 'see' the monster and have it make sense.

Yes, I don't disagree (nor shun, to be clear) that 'different' is currency. Only that people tend to, in my view, misinterpret what it means to be 'different'. Most publishers want stuff that feels different rather than actually is. Highly original work doesn't tend to actually sell that well, as I think I demonstrated in the above, so when publishers say 'send me something different' what they really want, 9 times out of 10 is a different perspective, a different feel, some type of subversion perhaps, and nothing more avant garde than that. Good books are 9/10's the familiar, 1/10 the 'new'. The 1/10 of new is extremely crucial, it is the unique selling point, the only thing that often makes the book actually memorable in the end, but that does not detract from the empirical truth that every story is mostly pretty unoriginal. Most importantly, the vast majority of the time that 1/10 of new is NOT found in monster or myth creation but in some other aspect. The perspective/feel/subversion/etc.

What could that different perspective look like? It might be as simple as a different narrative voice on an otherwise quite traditional story, or genre. Terry Pratchett is generally considered pretty original in fantasy, and he is, but all he is really doing is regurgitating standard fantasy plots (such as fairy tales) and stock characters and creatures (wizards, witches, trolls, Death, etc.) in a humorous, satirical voice -- often utilizing unconventional points of view. He didn't need to create vast swathes of 'new creatures' and to the extent there are 'new creatures' in his work they are mostly composites again, such as 'the crocodile god'.

I think this is what gets overlooked the most. Originality is not always about creating new things. It is, often as not, just about putting a new spin on what is already there. Take a standard Romeo & Juliet style romance and consider how you can do it entirely differently by changing everything other than the core premise. The result? We have a western, with Romeo & Juliet replaced by two gay cowboys. Suddenly we have something original and did not have to invent anything to get there.
 
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vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
What part of it would he laugh at? Super imaginative writing is a small market. A small market is still a market but the numbers don't lie. There are far more readers of grounded fiction than imaginative fiction, much like there are far more buyers of photographers and portrait artists than of the work of experimental modern artists.

The part where every moment of his career is the antithesis of your conclusion. I'd love to believe your surmise reflects popular standards, but I don't believe those standards exist in the marketplace. In today's world, trash outsells classics by a wide margin.

You need to define what you consider to be "grounded fiction". The biggest market share by 2 to 1 is Romance, and it comprises about a third of the fiction market. However, a substantial portion of Romance has crossed over into "Speculative Fiction" and the romance readers eat it up, even though the "Speculative" part is generally only window dressing, without much creativity or substance.

BTW, when you start quoting sales numbers, let's see something to back it up. This is the second thread where you've quoted sales numbers to me, and when I dug into it, I could not confirm them. I absolutely do not believe you're trying to deceive me, but I think you're quoting sales based on your own general notion, rather than research. According to "Felt Magnet" (self described as a site created by artists for artists) "modern or semi-abstract landscapes" and "abstracts" are the 3rd and 4th best selling themes. So yeah, you could hang your hat on the fact that "traditional landscapes" are number one--so yes more people buy those--but there is plenty of market outside of that. And those decisions are not exclusive, you'll find both in the same home.

The same is true with readers. Many read from multiple genres.

In book sales, Sci Fi and Fantasy is a half-billion dollar annual market. Yes, that's only a third of romance, but it's a bit disingenuous to suggest that you have to go on a scavenger hunt to find a reader.

https://feltmagnet.com/crafts/popular-art-that-sells

https://www.markinblog.com/book-sales-statistics/
According to Book Ad Report, the following sub-genres make the most money:
  1. Romance and Erotica ($1.44 billion)
  2. Crime and Mystery ($728.2 million)
  3. Religious/Inspirational ($720 million)
  4. Science Fiction and Fantasy books ($590.2 million)
  5. Children and Young Adult ($160 million)
  6. Horror ($79.6 million)
 
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luckyscars

WF Veterans
BTW, when you start quoting sales numbers, let's see something to back it up. This is the second thread where you've quoted sales numbers to me, and when I dug into it, I could not confirm them. I absolutely do not believe you're trying to deceive me, but I think you're quoting sales based on your own general notion, rather than research. According to "Felt Magnet" (self described as a site created by artists for artists) "modern or semi-abstract landscapes" and "abstracts" are the 3rd and 4th best selling themes. So yeah, you could hang your hat on the fact that "traditional landscapes" are number one--so yes more people buy those--but there is plenty of market outside of that. And those decisions are not exclusive, you'll find both in the same home.

The same is true with readers. Many read from multiple genres.

In book sales, Sci Fi and Fantasy is a half-billion dollar annual market. Yes, that's only a third of romance, but it's a bit disingenuous to suggest that you have to go on a scavenger hunt to find a reader.

https://feltmagnet.com/crafts/popular-art-that-sells

https://www.markinblog.com/book-sales-statistics/
According to Book Ad Report, the following sub-genres make the most money:
  1. Romance and Erotica ($1.44 billion)
  2. Crime and Mystery ($728.2 million)
  3. Religious/Inspirational ($720 million)
  4. Science Fiction and Fantasy books ($590.2 million)
  5. Children and Young Adult ($160 million)
  6. Horror ($79.6 million)

The ones you posted are close enough. The top two genres (romance + crime/mystery) are all grounded in the sense they probably take place in either the real world or something approximating it, you don’t get many crime stories set on other planets and so on. Sure, there are exceptions, you occasionally get romances set in fantasy worlds or whatever, but not many. Most romantic fantasies also probably get labeled as fantasy anyway, so it’s something of a wash.

Those two genres alone make up more than 2bn, compared to 590 million for science fiction and fantasy + horror, which are the only genres I would call completely speculative, in the sense they are the only ones that are not always set in some version of the real world (and even then, plenty of them actually are). So yeah, it’s pretty obvious to me that the market for highly imaginative fiction is significantly smaller than what we might call “realistic”.

While this does NOT mean it’s a tiny market ($590 million is $590 million) and I did not intend to say it was in any sense other than as comparatively, I’m prepared to draw a conclusion from it that your average adult who reads isn’t necessarily looking for the new Narnia in their reading material. If you would like to draw a different conclusion, you’re obviously welcome to do that.
 

Pallandozi

Senior Member
A book about hydras is more grounded than a book about Zimbakawakas (a fictionalized creature I just made up). It's more grounded because we know the basics of what a hydra is because it already exists in our lexicon, and in our culture.
That comes down to world building.

For example, Frank Herbert put sufficient effort into describing the sandworms of Dune, that we know more about them and their lifecycle than we do about the Hydra of Greek myth.

Was the book "1984" not relevant to the average man on the Clapham omnibus, because it featured talking animals?
 

Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
Literary as genre is absent in this list and is the most realistic of all. Numbers are a quantitative way of viewing things and qualitative is more difficult to understand as data. How a genre is perceived has probably has to do with other factors I feel. Emotional well drawn characters are the main appeal of fiction. I thought plot oriented fiction didn't do well. Look at crime and love for some plot "formulas" with twists. Character centered fiction tends to find a bigger audience. I think realistic fiction can apply to some genres. If you want to write more realistic fiction I don't know. Imagination is considered part of the creative process. To.make a work realistic would compromise the writer's voice. Each genre has its own strengths and weaknesses to overcome. Science fiction uses more plot than charcaterization. Also, some of the best science fiction novels rely on characterization.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Literary as genre is absent in this list and is the most realistic of all. Numbers are a quantitative way of viewing things and qualitative is more difficult to understand as data.

The reason Literary is absent is it doesn't sell enough to trend on that list. I just found an article titled "The slow death of the literary novel". They're just not in popular demand by the reading public. Every once in a while, a book or an author in the genre catches fire and gets some success, but as a market segment, sales are pathetic. As discussed above, the big dog is Romance, and the Romance that sells is not nitty-gritty realistic romance, it's fantasy romance. The #1 book on Amazon right now? It's the old, old antithetical romance trope (The Blind Date).

Imagination is considered part of the creative process. To.make a work realistic would compromise the writer's voice. Each genre has its own strengths and weaknesses to overcome. Science fiction uses more plot than charcaterization. Also, some of the best science fiction novels rely on characterization.
Extremely well said.
 
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